When much of American pop culture was infatuated with the swinging, psychedelic 1960s, John Frankenheimer was focused on the decade’s darker side—the sour aftertaste of McCarthyism, the expanding military-industrial complex, the growing sense that technology might be controlling us instead of the other way around. Of his eleven theatrical films made during this period, none is more chilling or prescient than 1966’s Seconds, the third and crowning chapter of what’s now known as Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy.
The main character is Arthur Hamilton, a burned-out bank executive who has reached middle age with little to show for it except a successful (boring) career and a tidy (boring) home with a pleasant (boring) spouse. He didn’t think much about his daily tedium until he started getting phone calls from an old friend he thought was dead, urging him to contact a mysterious Company that can give him a whole new life. Hesitantly deciding to check this out, Arthur visits the business and is swept through a hard-sell enrollment process, not knowing exactly what he’s agreeing to when he signs the contract.
He finds out soon enough. For a hefty fee, the Company will stage a bogus death for him by arranging an “accident” with an unidentifiable corpse in his place. Then radical surgery will alter his looks, his voice, his fingerprints, and even his signature to the point where his most intimate friends—not that Arthur has any—will fail to recognize him. Afterward, he’ll be able to jettison the past and start a fresh existence with a rejuvenated body and a new identity.
Mulling this over gives Arthur the willies, but backing out is impossible, since the Company immediately sets him up for blackmail by doping his tea and filming him with a prostitute. Thus does the careworn Scarsdale, New York, banker Arthur Hamilton, played to hangdog perfection by John Randolph, become the handsome Malibu painter Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, played by Rock Hudson, in the most deeply felt performance of his career.
Being a “reborn” turns out to be less satisfying than the Company claims, however. After suffering through the surgeries and meekly following all the rules, Arthur/Tony remains uncomfortable with his new persona and uneasy in his new surroundings, even when he finds romance with Nora (Salome Jens), a woman he meets on one of his lonely beachfront walks. Convinced that the Company has botched his case, he starts complaining and acting out in ways the other reborns—they’re everywhere, he belatedly learns—can’t tolerate. So it’s back to the Company with demands for a second second chance. The astonishing finale carries the story’s logic to its ultimate conclusion, packing as strong a narrative wallop as anything Frankenheimer ever created.
Frankenheimer had a gift for capturing the zeitgeist, and in the first two installments of his paranoia trilogy, he had already taken on some of postwar America’s most emotionally charged topics: brainwashing, commie bashing, and political assassination in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about a man hypnotically programmed to kill, and then nuclear dread, Cold War anxiety, and neofascist skullduggery in Seven Days in May (1964), about a military plot to seize the American government. Seconds cuts even closer to the bone, exposing the precariousness of the American dream through a vertiginous blend of genre elements: horror, noir, and science fiction collide with suspense worthy of Hitchcock, outrageousness worthy of Kafka, and an acid critique of American capitalism.
Every shot and scene unfolds with the inexorable (il)logic of a nightmare—but a lucid nightmare, since Frankenheimer’s fierce intelligence is at work along with his filmmaking skills. He told an interviewer that he wanted to adapt David Ely’s eponymous 1963 novel because “all of today’s literature and films about escapism are just rubbish, [since] you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are.” Seconds was his outcry “against ‘the Dream,’ the belief that all you need to do in life is to be financially successful.” He saw the film as “a matter-of-fact yet horrifying portrait of big business that will do anything for anybody, provided you are willing to pay for it.” It expressed his contempt for “all this nonsense in society that we must be forever young, this accent on youth in advertising and thinking.”
The attack on advertising was particularly relevant less than a decade after Vance Packard’s best seller The Hidden Persuaders skewered the original Mad Men for their amoral manipulation of American consumers. An early clue to the Company’s sinister nature is its shifty way of inducing Arthur to sign up. Instead of inveigling him with Faustian rewards of sex, glamour, and fulfillment, the Company stresses the emptiness of his current life, making him gaze into its vacant, lusterless eyes until he’ll do anything to look away. Few movies have indicted consumer culture with such withering scorn. Frankenheimer was a thoroughgoing liberal in his politics, incidentally, and in Seconds he found excellent parts for three gifted actors who had endured much hardship in the Hollywood blacklist years: Jeff Corey as a Company executive named Mr. Ruby, Will Geer as the unnamed Company chief, and Randolph as Arthur, his first Hollywood role after the studios banished him in 1955.
Seconds is no mere problem picture or message movie, though. It’s less a polemic than a punch to the sociopolitical solar plexus. It’s also a powerfully constructed work of art, darting with icy precision among a wealth of narrative, thematic, and cinematic ideas. Its unifying image is the human face, first seen behind the titles in huge, distorted close-ups that echo the swirling eye that opens Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), also a product of Saul Bass’s genius. Filmed by Bass himself, these shots provide a brooding foundation for James Wong Howe’s cinematography in the rest of the film, which is astonishing throughout, charged with the dark-toned intensity that made him a legendary camera artist. Disorienting close-ups reappear in the first scene, where a man from the Company stalks Arthur through Grand Central Terminal, slipping him a secret address just before his train pulls out of the station. A few scenes (and surgeries) later, Arthur emerges from his bandages with his fine-looking Tony features, still lacerated, stitched, and scarred from the ordeal they have undergone. The imagery comes full circle when the story culminates in one of the most excruciatingly intense close-up sequences ever filmed, recording the unhappy destiny of a man who has allowed himself to be literally defaced.
As those surgical scars suggest, Seconds is both Frankenheimian and Frankensteinian, carrying Mary Shelley’s concept of a “Modern Prometheus” into territory that James Whale and Boris Karloff never dreamed of. It’s the industrialized domain of midcentury America, where people are personnel—being head of his little bank was Arthur’s only tepid fantasy—and processed personnel, to boot. Arthur will be processed into Tony the way pink slime is processed into hamburger, and Frankenheimer leads up to this with marvelously ironic metaphors. Since the Company is cagey about its location, for instance, Arthur can’t go there directly. Instead, he’s routed through other businesses like a character in a fairy tale: first a claustrophobic laundry where steam-hissing trouser presses hint at the surgical smoothing in Arthur’s future, and then a meatpacking plant where the foreman yells at his laborers to speed the carcasses into the truck—a truck exactly like the one that will momentarily take Arthur, hunkered in the back like a wobbly side of beef, to the Company.
Food is a leitmotif in Seconds, usually showing up in unappetizing contexts, as when a Company exec (Ruby) interrupts his pitch to Arthur—which form of “death” would he prefer, perhaps a nice hotel fire?—to mooch some crispy chicken from the new client’s dinner plate. Art, and particularly painting, is another motif. Told to select a new vocation to match his new persona, Arthur says he’s thought occasionally about painting. And presto, he’s an artist, complete with a portfolio of works supplied by the same Company that painted surgical markers on his face and body before “repainting” them with scalpels instead of brushes. Frankenheimer’s mordant depiction of visual art in the modern age—mainly a tool of commerce, a servant of technology, or a refuge for dilettantes—sets up a telling contrast with the visual eloquence of Seconds itself.
At its deepest level, Seconds is also a resurrection story. It’s a deeply dystopian one, however, where the body is reborn but the spirit stays dead. A particularly haunting element is Geer’s brilliant performance as the folksy old gent who founded the Company and still clucks over it like a mother hen. He chats with Arthur more than once during the film, coaxing the prospective customer into his fold with smooth talk and therapy-speak. In one of their fateful conversations, the camera’s framing makes the brim of his hat look like a glowing halo; a little later, he reveals that he runs the entire operation and quotes some wisdom about “the soul of a good man” that his papa handed down to him. “I believe you,” Arthur murmurs in response, like a little boy in Sunday school. Could Papa be the Father and the Company chief his twinkly-eyed Son, escorting souls into a second life that’s the opposite of heavenly? This is one of many tantalizing possibilities running like scarlet threads through the film’s closely woven fabric.
Frankenheimer was well prepared when the challenge of Seconds came his way. He had spent the 1950s as a busy director of live television, and by 1966 he had made six features. Despite his flair for the fantastic, he once told me that “semidocumentary realism” was his strong suit, and the three paranoia films benefit from an overlay of normal life that adds plausibility to their unlikely plots and makes us all the more startled when the real gives way to the surreal. Howe had demonstrated his endless versatility in pictures like Alexander Mackendrick’s gritty Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Martin Ritt’s expressionist The Outrage (1964), and his unerring blend of the everyday and the uncanny in Seconds deservedly brought him one of his ten Oscar nominations. Jerry Goldsmith’s moody score provides a pungent finishing touch.
But in the end, Seconds is Frankenheimer’s film, giving the paranoia trilogy the grimly luminous capstone it deserves. These three movies set a lofty standard for postnoir cinema in the late sixties and beyond, presaging a dark parade of angst-drenched thrillers stretching from Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) to Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007). Almost half a century after its premiere, Seconds remains unique—a probing psychological adventure, a merciless assault on social evils, and one of the most startling, spellbinding rides you’ll ever take.
David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, guest editor of Film Quarterly, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. His essay “Murdered Souls, Conspiratorial Cabals: Frankenheimer’s Paranoia Films” appears in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film.